“This Little Light of Mine”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 5: 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12 & Matthew 5:13-20
We’ve gotten into the West Wing lately at our house. The series ran from 1999 to 2006, and it follows the fictional presidency of Jed Bartlet, a very Catholic Democrat from New Hampshire.
In one episode, President Bartlet has just been elected for a second term and he is spending the evening celebrating in the White House residence with his wife, Abbey. As is the case, I assume, in the real White House, President Bartlet and his wife keep getting interrupted by secretaries, political aids, and senior staff. One of the senior staffers that interrupts the President’s celebration is Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications Director.
Toby is a nervous man to begin with, but he has just learned some news that blows his nerves into full-on anxiety. His ex-wife, Andrea, who is a congresswoman from Maryland, is pregnant with twins, and Toby, through fertility treatment, is the father. Since Toby is in charge of communications for the White House, he knows that this must be handled delicately or else the media will have a field day. He tries to convince Andrea to hold a press conference, though she refuses over and over, and he even visits with the White House lawyer to see if there are any legal implications they need to be aware of. He just wants to get the news out there before anyone has a chance to spin it.
So back to the night of President Bartlet’s reelection, and Toby has finally summoned the courage to tell the President his news. Inside the residence, Toby knocks on the door, enters, and greets the President. The President replies with a quick and unhappy, “Hi.” “Listen,’ the President says, ‘I’m kind of in the middle of something. Is this anything that could possibly wait until tomorrow?” “Of course it is, Mr. President,’ Toby replies, ‘I’m sorry. Really, I stopped by ‘cause I hadn’t told you that Andy’s pregnant. It’s twins, and of course, I’m the father.” “Well, that’s great.’ the President exclaims, ‘Well done. See you tomorrow.” With that the President pushes Toby out the door, and slams it behind him. This doesn't sit well with the First Lady. She screams, “Toby, get back in here!” Toby is right outside the door, so he slips back in. “Andy’s pregnant?” the First Lady asks. “Yes, it’s, uh, twins. A boy and a, um, uh, a girl.” The President jumps in, “You should marry that girl, Toby.” “I’m doing my best, sir.” Toby replies.
The banter goes back and forth for a little while. The President asks when the babies are due and Toby replies, “End of May.” “Wait a second. End of May?” the President asks, “Hang on, I’m doing the math in my head. Yeah, end of May? Why didn’t you tell us until now?” Very quietly Toby responds: “Truth is, I don’t have a reason, sir. At least not a good one. I was intimidated by your Catholicism.” “Really?” the President asks. “Yes,” Toby replies. “It’s my Catholicism, Toby,” the President says, “It works for me.” “And me,” the First Lady chimes in. “Did you break any laws?” the President asks. “No, sir,” Toby responds. “Then a blessing on your house, young man. Mazel tov.” Then again, the President pushes Toby out of the room and the celebration continues.
To me, this is a tremendous example of what it means to be the light of the world. Toby was afraid that President Bartlet, because of his Catholic faith, would judge him, look down upon him, or maybe even fire him. The President’s Christian tradition, like many other Christian traditions, does not look kindly on people who conceive children outside of marriage. But that’s not the way the President goes. Instead, the President, though a little miffed that he can’t celebrate his victory in peace, congratulations Toby and sends him on his way. I understand that these are fictional characters in a fictional TV series, but whose to say that we can’t learn something from them?
For two weeks now the gospel lessons have put us at the feet of Jesus as he gives the Sermon on The Mount, on a hillside in the region of Galilee. This is Christ’s inaugural address to the men and women who will follow him. The Sermon on The Mount is Christ’s definitive declaration that the Kingdom of God has come to earth. This Kingdom, as we heard last week, begins with folks who don’t get much attention from the wider community: mourners, the poor in spirit, the meek and merciful, the turned-away and rejected. Jesus says very clearly that these folks are blessed. They are the building blocks of the Kingdom of God, and they are promised great riches: comfort, inheritance of the earth, the privilege of being called children of God. They didn’t earn it, and some are living in conditions that no one welcomes. Yet, God is generous and Jesus calls them blessed and points their eyes forward to a day when all things will be made new. They are not blessed because they mourn or face persecution or are victimized; they are blessed because they are children of God. Period. Full stop.
Jesus makes more of these clear statements today. He says to his followers, and to you and me, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” At first, this might seem like those nightmares we’ve all had. You know the ones where you show up to work or to church or to court and someone tells you that you are giving the big presentation or you are preaching or you are giving the opening statement. The nightmare is that you forgot and you are totally unprepared. But this isn’t the case when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” Just like the blessings in The Beatitudes, salt and light are Jesus’s way of speaking about our identity as his people. It’s not a list of things to do, as if we get prizes for doing them or punishments if we don’t. It’s not a blindside list of demands from on high. That’s not how God works and its not how Jesus works, either. Jesus is speaking our identity to us and he says we are salt and light; we can’t earn it, we didn’t earn it, and nothing can take it away.
Bask in that for a moment. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the thing that brings all the other flavors together, that can accentuate and bring to life even the most subtle nuance. You are the thing that no living thing can be without, the very element that causes plants grow, that marks the seasons as they change, that shines in the darkness. You are the salt of the earth: not policies or law codes or pretty art or illuminating sciences…you are. You are the light of the world: not the emperor or the ruling class or those that sit in high seats of power…you are. By faith and the waters of baptism this is who we are as Christ’s people. No one other than Jesus Christ can define you and me, or tell us who and what we are; only Christ can do that and today he choses these as our identity: salt and light.
Now when we’re done basking in that gloriously good news, we have to claim it and recognize that such a profound identity demands action. Think about the identity shifts you’ve had in your life: moving to a new town, taking a new job, becoming a parent. These are profound moments that require us to change, to shift, to move in order to live fully into the new identity. In about five months my identity is going to take on a new, and slightly terrifying facet: that of being a father. When the baby is born, my identity will change, I’ll be a father. But as many of you have wisely counseled me, my way of life has to change, too. I’m going to have learn to love schedules, be OK with giving up some of my nightly beauty rest, and so many other things that I don’t have a clue about right now. Identity demands action, and our identity as salt and light is no different.
This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the place where there is the most division and strife among people of Christian faith. We don’t have trouble with Jesus saying that are salt and light, but we do have trouble when we try to discern what that means, what that means we’re supposed to do, right here and right now. What are the bland parts of the world that need a flavor boost? Where and what is the darkness that desperately needs our Christian light? There are the big things that I think most people of faith can agree on: hunger, homelessness, poverty, addiction. But even within these there is disagreement about what Christians can and should do. Then there are the more complicated issues like the roll of the Church in the political arena, the place of religion in society, and how Christians should navigate a world where they are the religious minority. Some say that the Church should have no place in politics at all, and they say so from deeply held beliefs and honest readings of Scripture. Others say that the Church should be the most prominent voice in the ears of politicians, and they say so from deeply held beliefs and honest readings of Scripture. Some Christians believe in protesting, others think its pointless. Some Christians believe that environmentalism is a calling of faith, other don’t. Some Christians think that church should be entertaining and flashy, others want to keep it traditional. I can’t guarantee much, but I can guarantee that if ten of us here today were to sit down and speak our beliefs on any number of current topics and issues, there would be ten different takes, ten different opinions, and ten different ideas about what Jesus wants us to do about it.
I don’t pretend to have the answer to this today, and I’m alright with that because about 2,000 years of teachers and preachers haven't come up with an answer either. But this isn’t a reason to turn off the lights and close up the shop. No, its actually a reason to keep doing the things we are doing. We should continue worshipping God and not the many idols that demand our attention. We should continue putting our faith and trust in Jesus Christ and not in human systems that always fail us. We should keep our hearts and minds and ears open to the unpredictable voice of the Holy Spirit and not to the voices that tell us we are worthless, irrelevant, or unreasonable. We should continue to be a place where our disagreements sharpen us like iron on iron, but don’t define us; we should be and are a place where ten people can sit down and hash things out, disagree with each other, but leave in the love and unity of Christ.
We should be a congregation that doesn’t mourn for what was 50 years ago, but instead yearns for what God will make us today and 50 years into the future. We should and will continue to sit at this table, eat the bread and drink from the cup, flabbergasted by the fact that there is always enough. We should remember that both salt and light can be corrosive and destructive, and measure our words and actions against those of Jesus Christ.
We must remember that truth is our currency. We are to speak, share, and write the truth. Once we shrink from the truth, the truth of God, what do we have? We must remember, as Jed Bartlet did on that fictional TV show, that what works for us may not work for everyone else, and if God is as big and powerful as we say, God will work it out. We must honor and care for those who are most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the very young and the very old, those with disabilities. We must be welcoming, not because we are superior or more enlightened, but because at one time we were on the outside and welcomed in. We must work for fairness and justice, lifting up people of all colors, nationalities, genders, and religions, because we cannot claim to be created in the image of God and then say someone else is not. We must listen, always aware that we may be wrong, always looking for the best in those with whom we disagree. We must always agree to have each other’s backs. This is what Jesus did and this is what he taught. And it is how he sends us out into the world as salt and light. This isn’t an answer to how we will come to agreement; we’re all going to do it in different ways. It’s not an answer to all the world’s problems, and it certainly won’t end all the strife that humans and Christians experience. But maybe it’s not about answers. Maybe its about doing the things that are of Christ and allowing him to form us, leaving the rest to God.
This is the good news of the Gospel today: you are the salt and you are light. This little light of mine, and in fact it is little, I’m going to let it shine. And I hope you’ll let your light shine, too. Because here’s the thing: when I put my light together with yours, and you put your light together with your neighbor’s, and your neighbor puts their light together with their neighbor's, and so on and so on, no bushel basket that will be able to contain it. It will sit on the lampstand, and it will give light to all in the house. Let your light shine; God gave it to you, and nothing can take it away. And all then all will see and give glory to God in heaven. Amen.